The Ecstasy of the Evangelist

All About Music & Spirituality/ Songs That Take Me There/ A Playlist/ Preaching the blues in China: a Big in China excerpt with video and photos. / "Tupelo Honey" with Junior Mack.

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“The Ecstasy Of The Evangelist” was a title I had ready to go, but it was only supposed to be about the incredible spiritual power I felt playing the blues in China. That story is down below in this post, a Big in China excerpt that I think comes alive with a video and photo from the very show being discussed.

My musical experiences have always been driven by that drive to feel communion.

Every show I played in China was like a holy moment for me, in large part because I felt such a surge of emotions introducing American music I care so much about to a new audience. Every time I played a song by someone like Johnny Copeland, Little Milton, Gregg Allman or Bob Dylan and said their name to a Chinese audience it was like uttering a blessing, because their music has meant that much to me. It is like praying, like going to church or synagogue - something that’s always been true for me but which I didn’t quite consciously think about until I had that experience.

Playing to an audience that largely couldn’t understand the words I was singing liberated me and it made me a better, more expressive singer. I felt like I had to invest the song with the emotion meant to be conveyed the lyrics. I had to have the audience understand the song even if they couldn’t understand a word I sang. I had to transcend language, and that forced me to think about how that was always what drew me to any given music - or left me cold about others. I have plenty of videos from our earlier China performances where my wife Rebecca, filming, can be heard expressing her surprise at how god I sound. I don’t really have a good voice, but when things are working right, I have an expressive one - and that’s the quality I’ve always been drawn to across all musical genres.

What really got me thinking about all this is a panel I’ll be part of Monday, 3/29 at 5 PM EST, with Seton Hall University. It’s about music and spirituality and it’s going to be a good one. Open to one and all, so register here --> I'll be talking about feeling the spirit playing the blues in China, how the Allman Brothers made the Beacon a church, SRV's transcendance & more.

What is some secular music that makes you feel the spirit? Share in the comments, or email me and we’ll make another post about your answers. Already so much great response when I mentioned on my Facebook page. Let’s keep that going!

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I made a Feeling The Spirit Playlist - music that takes me there. As always, this is not meant to be a definitive list. I put them together by feel, instinct, memory at the moment. I could make another one for almost any topic every day

The following excerpt, from Big in China Chapter 30, Bittersweet Surrender, captures when my band Woodie Alan was riding a crest and performing the first of three gigs at Changsha, Hunan’s Coco Clubs. This was in early September, 2008, just after the Olympics. We were starting work on recording our album Beijing Blues and cranking up to a very high level of activity, driven in part by the fact that I’d be moving back to the US in December.

We had been named Best Band in Beijing a few months prior and that opened a lot of doors and made national touring a very real option. Just before Changsha we had headlined two nights at the Xiamen Beach Festival, in front of about 5,000 people on the beach in the lovely Southern city. Our first night there was one I shall never forget. Enjoy.

If you want to dig deeper, I have a whole playlist of Woodie Alan Youtube videos right here.

Our first gig in Changsha was at Coco’s “private club for successful people,” a members-only establishment that looked like the bastard child of a Seventies fondue restaurant and a high-end brothel, with burnished wood and red banquettes everywhere. It also featured an impressively stocked cigar humidor and an extensive private bottle collection where members kept their own wine, cognac and scotch.

The packed crowd cheered loudly before and after every song, a remarkably enthusiastic reception for American roots music in Chairman Mao’s home province. Though it was a Wednesday night, people were partying hard.

When we kicked into our next-to-last song, “Hey Hey Guniang,” the hard-charging Chinese jump blues sung by Zhang Yong, three beefy tough guys and their beautiful molls started dancing right in front of the stage. I had noted them all night as they alternated between drinking cognac in their banquette booth and leaping up to cheer. One of the men stumbled towards me, with something in his hand. I couldn’t make out what it was until he stuck a giant Cuban cigar in my mouth and raised his lighter with an unsteady hand.

I continued to pound away on my guitar, the giant stogie protruding out of my crooked grin. My hand was aching and bleeding under the bandages from a cut I received from a broken beer bottle during a post-festival victory toast in Xiamen, but I didn’t even notice. As we segued into the American jump blues “Kansas City,” I held the cigar in my left hand and spread my arms wide as I belted out, “I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come.” Watching all these Chinese people grow almost delirious, dancing with abandon, I growled out the lyrics: “They got some crazy little women there and I’m gonna get me one.”

When we ended the night with “Soulshine” as we almost always did, the crowd clapped along, swaying to the music and waving lighters in the air. I thought of Warren Haynes, the Allman Brothers Band guitarist who wrote the song, and remembered all the times I had spent listening to his music, watching him play and interviewing him on his tour bus and in his New York apartment. I imagined how happy he would be to have his music spread so far from home and for the first time I understood the ecstasy of the evangelist. I felt like a preacher spreading the gospel into the farthest reaches of China.

When we finished playing, the tough who had given me the cigar pulled me down into his booth and poured me a snifter of Courvoisier. He and his buddies patted me on the back, as two long-legged beauties slid in on either side of me. When one of the thick-necked men raised his snifter in salute, I sensed that the girls were just like the cigar and the cognac: rewards offered for a job well done.


Before I could sneak away, I felt a hand on each of my thighs. One of the women pulled me close and whispered into my ear, in slurred, drunken English.

“What is the name of your bass player?”

“Zhang Yong.”

“If you bring me to Zhang Yong, you can touch me anywhere.”

She squeezed my thigh hard. Then the other one pulled me to her and put her lips inside my ear. “Don’t bring her to your bass player.” She was equally drunk. “Bring me.”

The first one yanked me back. “Touch me anywhere!”

I laughed at the fact that the first time I had groupies they were just trying to get to Zhang Yong, but I wasn’t surprised. The quiet, self-possessed bassist had several beautiful girlfriends in Beijing, sometimes showing up at an afternoon gig with one and an evening performance with another. When I asked him once, in Chinese, how many girlfriends he had, he laughed and responded, in English, “Many, many girlfriends.”

I just wanted to get away from both of these women. The path of least resistance was to lead the more persistent one to Zhang Yong, who could surely handle her easier than could I. “Just come with me,” I said

She slid out of the booth and rose onto unsteady feet. When I got up she put her arm around my waist and leaned into my side. We walked into the back room where the band was sitting at a discrete corner table. Surprise washed over everyone’s faces at the sight of this beautiful Chinese woman draped over me. “Don’t worry,” I said in Chinese. “She wants Zhang Yong.”

He got up and laughed when I told him to be careful. They walked off together and five minutes later he returned alone and said that he had walked outside and put her in a cab.

I play Tupelo Honey almost every Big in China gig. Whenever I sing it, especially the second verse, I feel something move through me... and I don't know why because the lyrics aren't overtly spiritual except my favorite part that starts that second verse:

"You can't stop us on the road to freedom/ You can't stop us 'cause our eyes can see.”

Big in China “Tupelo Honey” w. special guest Junior Mack

We will be back at Suzy Que’s on April 24; it’s free, but reservations strongly encouraged as the numbers will be capped. Click here for info.

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Alan Paul’s last two books – Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan and  One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band  – debuted in the New York Times Non Fiction Hardcover Best Seller’s List. His first book was Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing, about his experiences raising a family in Beijing and touring China with a popular original blues band. It was optioned for a movie by Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Productions.  He is also a guitarist and singer who fronts two bands, Big in China and Friends of the Brothers, the premier celebration of the Allman Brothers Band.